The Iron Law of Oligarchy
(This article submitted by Angelina Deyarmond aka
this story to a friend
Krishna movement (ISKCON) was founded in 1966 by A.C.
Bhaktivedanta Swami (Prabhupada) in New York City. A cultural
an Indian devotional denomination of Hinduism, Hare Krishna attracted
converts during the next 10 years, especially among the younger
From a beginning of less then 30 "drop-outs" gathering in a rented
front near Manhattans Bowery, the group swelled to over 5000 full-time
members (devotees) and 42 American temples by 1977.
In 1971 a
group of twelve was chosen to manage the fledgling society. This
group was named the Governing Body Commission (GBC). The primary
of a GBC member were to advise and oversee temples within a particular
geographic area, and to insure that certain standards were being
the members of each temple within this "zone". In addition, the body
had powers to enact laws for the more effective running of the society
movement's philosophy taught that although devotees may occupy
different material positions, all should be treated equally because of
identical spiritual nature. Members were expected to work
the service of God (Krishna). All devotees (GBC and non-GBC) were
follow four rigid principles: no meat eating, no illicit sex, no
intoxication of any kind and no gambling. Attendance at early morning
devotional programs, including a two hour prayer-meditation session was
encouraged for everyone.
In 1977 the
founder of the movement was near passing away. Prabhupada
requested his followers to be with him. Several GBC members, present at
time, minimized the request and discouraged others from coming. As a
a very small number of devotees were with Prabhupada before his
During this period, the GBC made a practice of taping Prabhupada's
and instructions. After Prabhupadas passing, some GBC members used
recordings to assert that their position was to be the exclusive "new
of the movement. Furthermore, they claimed to have inherited these
This is a
good illustration of the first stage of Oligarchy's "Iron Law".
The goal of these leaders seems to be simply to stay in power.
Some devotees objected to the above claims, saying that much of the
information had been misrepresented and taken out of context. Most of
dissenters were stigmatized by the "new gurus" and lost all credibility
(chilling of dissent, coercion).
Soon the "new
gurus" became surrounded by their own followers from whom
they demanded obedience and service. Over a period of time, many came
accept gifts for their personal comfort as a standard "side benefit" of
their position. Thoughts of using these gifts for the mission's
trend demonstrates the second phase of the "Iron Law": "power
holders cannot resist using public resources for personal gain."
Being surrounded by followers and opulence, the "new gurus" began to
of themselves as important world figures although they were known only
relatively small number of people. They embarked on expensive
preaching tours, had books and magazines printed in their honor, and
celebrated their own birthdays with great pomp. Instances arose of "new
gurus" who became slack in following the strict requirements, but this
behavior was rationalized by their followers as being divine
obvious example of the third step of the "Iron Law" at work:
"power holders became cut off from reality and developed an exaggerated
sense of their own virtues."
above tendencies toward corruption, an increasing number of
devotees became alarmed. Their concern was initially disregarded
the "new gurus". Then, it was tossed off as being envious comments of
ambitious few. As the clamor rose, strong condemnations were rained
dissenters by the "new gurus". Unable to hear or understand the
even when presented to them in a clear and logical fashion, the "new
developed attitudes containing a mixture of paranoia and blind
Thus, the fourth stage of oligarchy had set in: "Those in power develop
belief that less powerful people are naturally inferior."
In time, a
reform group was organized with in the Hare Krishna movement
that eventually replaced the "new gurus" with a more democratic system
As we have
seen, regardless of the character of the individual in power (a
saint or a sinner), the "Iron Law of Oligarchy" seems to take effect.
Footnote-Information gathered from an interview with a member of the
Krishna movement on 7/30/87. Reference to Michel's "Iron Law of
Contemporary Society: A Classical Approach and Sociology by Beth Hess,
Elizabeth Markson and Peter Stein.